It’s nearly 40 years since its first performance, but John Byrne’s Slab Boys still has its finger on the pulse and doesn’t miss a beat.
The usherettes waiting in the foyer of the King’s Theatre were gamely attired in 50s sleeveless dresses and neck scarves on this pretty chill evening. Inside the auditorium, Rock Around The Clock was belting out and the slab room - in all its paint-spattered, sludgy-green glory - filled the stage. Distinctively-Byrne graffiti-doodles of Teddy Boys on the wall and a moody drawing of James Dean on the cupboard door, hinted at the possibilities of rebellion and firmly cemented the sense of time and place.
Back in the fifties, Byrne had worked in the slab room of a carpet manufacturer near Paisley. Here, he and another couple of lads would spend their days grinding out tons of powdered colours for the designers, who in turn would produce the paper patterns that were, in their turn, passed on to the weaving room. Not quite Fordism, but nevertheless doomed to repeat the same mind-numbingly boring task over and over while on the bottom rung of this ladder, the slab boys’ dream was to escape – either up or off. Twenty years later, having successfully jumped off the ladder himself, Byrne wrote about his experience. Set in 1957, The Slab Boys follows three teenagers through one particularly significant working day in the murky hole that is the slab room.
There is the Establishment: men who have recently fought in the war and believe these youngsters of today don’t know they’re born. There’s the ubiquitous social inequality and the natural resentments and frustrations that spring from that. And then there are the hopes and dreams and the petty rebellions that keep you going through the day. This may be the fifties, but all of this is instantly recognisable and demonstrates just how persistent and pervasive such attitudes and themes actually are.
The cast of eight each played their roles with spot-on timing, which was absolutely critical and drew out every ounce of humour as well as sudden stabs to the heart. The three slab boys carried the performance with pace, character and great skill: Sammy Hayman as Phil and Jamie Quinn as Spanky made excellent sparring partners as the two central characters, while Scott Fletcher as Hector made a perfect foil for their banter. Actor and director David Hayman, who also directed the first production back in 1978, played the establishment figure with the style and assurance you would expect of him and managed to keep this production looking like it was fresh off the press.
A sly, dry wit deliberately glides over the darker themes of mental illness and the resounding unfairness of the haves and have-nots, that are the heart-throb of this play. The humour and pragmatism with which these are addressed brings a more keenly-felt emotion than any amount of soul-searching or sentimentality could hope to do. The three young lads of the slab room stand between the fading values of those who fought in the last world war and the youth culture that was about to usher in a whole new attitude to life in the 1960s - from world war to class war in a single generation. Although in Byrne’s classic play, those who win in the short-term are those who conform to the establishment, our sympathies lie firmly with the talented, disaffected, disadvantaged bad-boy. And all our hopes go with him.
Runs 10th – 14th March